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Australian universities need to refocus on learning rather than on marketing

By Dianna Kenny - posted Monday, 9 February 2004

I dream of a new age of curiosity. We have the technical means for it; the desire is there; the things to be known are infinite; the people who can employ themselves in this task exist. (Foucault, 1980, p. 198-199)

I went to university in those halcyon days of Commonwealth and teacher training scholarships, no HECS, a politically aware and active campus, stimulating small-group tutorials, well-stocked libraries, time to read for and write academic essays to which mentors provided useful feedback. At least we struggled to write prose that sought to unravel, explain, and apply complex and often-competing ideas about the social and natural worlds. In essence, the academic essay, small-group tutorials and campus political activity were the elements comprising our long apprenticeships as academic craft workers. We were part of Foucault’s new age of curiosity.

Many of the elements that shaped my generation’s intellectual and professional development are sadly absent from today’s university life. Clive Hamilton argues that students have been reformulated as consumers of educational commodities. “Commercialisation [has changed] the nature of universities … and students … When degrees become commodities, students are absolved of the responsibility to think…it is easier to reproduce ideas … than struggle with them.” It is difficult to struggle with ideas in an educational climate that no longer supports that struggle. In some faculties, the academic essay and small-group tutorials have all but disappeared in undergraduate courses. Multiple choice questions and distance education rule. The World Wide Web is the library. Campus is no longer politically aware or active. Students must work all year round to support their education, and cheating, copying and plagiarism have replaced intellectual inquiry and curiosity.


But why struggle when the intellectual demands have been so drastically reduced? Lower quality undergraduate degrees make good economic sense. In professional faculties, the poor quality of undergraduate degrees ensures that graduates are forced to enrol in post-graduate courses to gain sufficient expertise in their areas. Lest they learn too much in one postgraduate course, quality there has also been adjusted downwards. The old graduate diplomas are now the new Masters degrees. Entry requirements are flexible and standards variable. In fact, in some universities, students may enter directly at the Masters level and bypass an undergraduate degree altogether! Course credit arrangements allow students to gain two degrees for the price of one, or one degree in half the time, and grade inflation makes every student outstanding, even those who cannot spell, punctuate, think logically or construct a coherent sentence. Appeals against academic decisions to fail students for unacceptable work are often upheld. "Lifelong learning" is a euphemism for serial enrolment in a proliferation of substandard fee-paying post-graduate courses.

Changes to industry awards and associated funding problems have heralded an end to our over-reliance on casual teaching staff to plug the gaps left by permanent staff shortages. The staff-student ratio at Australia’s so-called premier university has shown a steady increase over the five-year period 1998-2003 from 13.8 to 17.0. Students, of necessity, get less individual attention in all but the privileged faculties and have become more instrumental and demanding. And justifiably so – they are paying more through HECS for their tertiary qualification and receiving less and less in return.

Cain and Hewitt, in their book, Off Course, complain that “students are experiencing a progressive reduction in resources devoted to their education” while at the same time there has been an increase in the number of overseas students and full fee-paying students. Large sums are devoted to “creative packaging of courses and subjects.” To accommodate these larger numbers, “teaching contact hours are shorter and classes are larger.” Simultaneously, universities are becoming increasingly top heavy with Vice Chancellors, Senior Deputy Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors, Pro Vice Chancellors, and Assistant Deputy Vice Chancellors, all of whom attract the salary packages of some CEOs in the private corporate sector but produce none of the income that pays their salaries.

Teaching staff, generally, have become less idealistic and more cynical about their role as educators as the “stairway to academic heaven” is paved with publications and research grants. The American Academy has coined the term “the least publishable unit” to describe attempts to boost publication records of academics seeking rapid promotion through the ranks. Academics must become “idiots savants” to gain promotion, by focusing on some tiny sub-area of a sub-discipline until they know more and more about less and less (until eventually they know everything about nothing!).

We must face up to the sad realisation that the academy is now a factory and most academics are mass production workers. Universities in this country are succumbing to Gresham’s law that bad money will drive out good money. Bad scholarship is driving out good scholarship and bad degrees are driving out good degrees.

The recent statement by the Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC) that Australia should aim to have 60 per cent of the population holding university degrees represents a search for greater market penetration for the higher-education product. Dumbed-down courses, perfunctory marking, grade inflation and declining standards all guarantee confidence in the customer (many from this pool will necessarily have IQs below average) that by paying their money a degree will follow. So declining standards are not a problem for the AVCC; neither is understaffing produced by over-enrolment (Dr Nelson, don’t worry!). Academics may be both underpaid and overworked, but this simply means that they are an efficient labour resource: they come cheap and do a good job. What more could a higher-education CEO want?


So, for the AVCC, there really is no crisis in the Higher Education industry. Pleasingly-packaged products are sold to satisfied customers, the tertiary market is expanding nationally and abroad, and profitability is on the rise. The main problem with the tertiary education business is simply that it has not yet rid itself of dinosaurs like me, Cain and Hewitt, my colleagues and others who refuse to adjust to the sound business principles embedded in the higher-education reforms. Antonio Gramsci maintained that “crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” But natural attrition (and perhaps a little unnatural attrition) will sort that out. For the AVCC and Australian universities, the future looks bright! (The well-being of academics and students will be just a postscript in this brave new enterprise).

I thank my colleagues, Dr Stephen Buckle and Dr Dennis McIntyre, for their old-fashioned willingness to struggle with ideas with me in the writing of this article.

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About the Author

Dr Dianna Kenny is Professor of Psychology at The University of Sydney.

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